Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Central Asian Leaders Think Alike
IWPR's March conference in Bishkek focused on the mounting media crisis in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan where the authorities are becoming increasingly intolerant of political dissent.
The round table debate concluded that government attacks on the independent media were following a similar pattern in both countries. It called for the journalistic community as a whole to find ways of protecting press freedom on a regional as well as a national level.
The conference examined the various factors which have contributed to the existing crisis.
First and foremost, said the delegates, the regimes established by Kazak president Nursultan Nazarbaev and his Kyrgyz counterpart, Askar Akaev, used the legal system as a means of crushing democratic protest.
Participants agreed that both Central Asian leaders held unassailable positions and national elections only served to give a veneer of legitimacy to their totalitarian regimes.
Nurbolat Masanov, co-chairman of the Forum of Democratic Forces in Kazakstan, commented, "The danger is that the entire population becomes dependent on the personality and abilities of a single man."
Central Asian heads of state have traditionally placed allies in top administrative positions across the country, thereby bringing entire regions under their control.
In both countries, the media falls almost entirely under the control of the presidential "families". In Kazakstan, the Khabar conglomerate owns more than 80 per cent of the media, including the second largest newspaper, Karavan.
In Kyrgyzstan, the ruling cabal owns the national TV stations and is now concentrating on mopping up the most profitable newspapers such as Vecherny Bishkek.
Meanwhile, the opposition press has practically ceased to exist, with many publications shut down by court orders or crippling fines. The most popular papers in the state language - SolDat in Kazakstan and Asaba in Kyrgyzstan - have folded.
Journalists at the IWPR round table also pointed out that private capital provided little or no counterbalance to the dictates of the Kyrgyz and Kazak presidents. While the "families" controlled the lion's share of industry - the oil business in Kazakstan and the gold mines in Kyrgyzstan - the private sector was kept firmly in check.
Both leaders saw private wealth as a potential springboard for political opposition. They had driven profitable enterprises, such as AO Bakai, out of business and their owners out of politics.
Kyrgyz parliamentary deputy Zainitdin Kurmanov said, "Only the bureaucrats live well - giving no material benefit to the country but keeping tight controls over all state mechanisms."
Nurbolat Masanov added, "There is no middle class - no one to demand reforms and liberal economic policies. The system is such that no one can challenge the regime either on the political or the economic stage."
The army was also cited as a political non-entity with no moderating influence on the ruling cabals. Professor Kurmanov said, "If our officers received a brilliant education and went on attachments to the West, then the army could become a decisive factor [in national politics]. But, for now, it's in the authorities' interests to have a worker- peasant army and not a professional one."
The political opposition was equally powerless although, the delegates noted, there were substantial differences in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakstan.
There was, they concluded, no formal opposition in Kyrgyzstan.
Described by journalists as "inconsequential and cowardly", the Kyrgyz opposition leaders see one another as political rivals, vying for personal concessions from the Bishkek regime.
Furthermore, they enjoy no support from the electorate - even if they are trying to represent their interests. Paradoxically, the bulk of the population is highly critical of the Akaev government but remains largely indifferent to the opposition parties.
In Kyrgyzstan, there is a strong opposition force concentrated around non-governmental organisations, NGOs, which are enthusiastically supported in the West. If they have little control over parliament's decisions, they can at least monitor its activities.
There are currently around 2,000 NGOs in the former Soviet republic which could lay the foundation for a powerful political alliance. However, the Bishkek regime has contrived to weaken their ranks by creating pro-government NGOs from amongst its own supporters.
Meanwhile, in Kazakstan, the NGO community derives little support from the West. Here, President Nazarbaev's political opponents are united under the aegis of the Forum of Democratic Forces (FDF) but, in the face of official pressure, many leading opposition figures have been forced to flee abroad.
Based in London, Paris, Toronto and Washington, the Kazak opposition in exile is led by the ex-prime minister Akezhan Kazhegeldin.
Nurbolat Masanov explained, "[Kazhegeldin's] potential is limited by the fact that he is currently abroad. But his strategy is to maintain a dialogue with Western leaders and influence their relations with Kazakstan. Of course, the Kazak authorities would breath more easily if Kazhegeldin were safely under lock and key in Kazakstan and firmly under their control."
However, delegates at the Bishkek conference pointed out that the leaders of the Kazak opposition were forced to maintain a low profile while the Astana regime called for their extradition.
Furthermore, Western governments were unwilling to sour relations with a country which boasted considerable oil reserves - thanks to Chevron and Mobil, Kazakstan has powerful allies in the United States.
At the same time, President Askar Akaev has been careful to keep his political bete noir, Felix Kulov, under his thumb. The Kyrgyz political map would undoubtedly be very different if such a serious rival had been given the chance to rally opposition forces abroad.
Masanov commented, "If the Kyrgyz opposition had a leader in the West with sufficient resources and contacts, this would have a beneficial effect not just on Kyrgyzstan but also on Kazakstan."
Kurmanov added, "If Kyrgyzstan is genuinely embracing democracy, it needs to have political rivalry. Kyrgyzstan should have at least one Kazhegeldin and a whole cohort of forward-thinking politicians who know the ropes and can make real progress. Unfortunately, there's a serious shortage of such political figures."
Conference participants went on to say that, in both Kazakstan and Kyrgyzstan, ordinary people were little more than "dumb witnesses to the political process". In both republics, only five per cent of people were town-dwellers with the vast majority living in traditional, rural societies.
"The people are outside politics - they are alienated from the political process just as they were in Soviet times," commented Masanov. " It will be a long while before we can overcome this. Ninety-five per cent of the Kazak population lives on the land and they have inherited a traditionalist culture.
"That is to say they are easily manipulated and consider politics to be a dirty business. That's the main reason why Kazhegeldin and other opposition leaders have so little popular support."
Kurmanov supported this view, adding that "against the backdrop of a ruined economy, bandit privatisation and huge price rises, talk of democratic reform arouses little support from the people."
Also, as little was done to improve life of ordinary people in the last 10 years, hundreds of thousands were forced to emigrate, freeing up accommodation and lightening the government's social support burden. As it is mostly the educated people which emigrate, the politicians themselves are fond of saying, "When the lid is open, the steam evaporates and the pressure is off."
The political commentators predict that, in the future, the Kazak and Kyrgyz leaders will become more conservative and increasingly influenced by a tight cabal of advisors.
At the same time, however, they expect to see a growing power struggle within this inner circle. In both countries, the so-called heirs apparent have already made their presence felt on the political stage.
In Kyrgyzstan, perhaps, Akaev's heirs lack the energy and authority of their Kazak counterparts.
In Astana, Nazarbaev's ambitious son-in-laws, Rakhat Aliev and Timur Kulebaev, vie for power and influence with the president's nephew, Kairat Satybalda. Some analysts believe Satybalda enjoys greater support in the corridors of power than either Aliev or Kulebaev but, for now, the ambitions of all three are held in check by the formidable energy of Nazarbaev himself.
Masanov anticipates the power struggle within Akaev's circle to face the problem of securing legitimacy, which explains why they are now flirting with the opposition.
Most analysts comment that the issue of political succession does not bode well for the opposition. It is possible that any future heir will simply create an artificial opposition within the ruling clan in order to secure political legitimacy.
Proper opposition finds it difficult to persevere as political figures who demonstrate even the slightest hint at becoming independent and possess charisma soon become the targets of official persecution. Often they are fobbed off with prestigious diplomatic postings to put them out of harm's way.
The absence of charismatic leaders is given as an explanation for the opposition forces' lack coordination. For this reason, some observers believe that the Kazak and Kyrgyz opposition groups should pool their resources and forge an alliance.
"Kazak opposition has a genuine structure and Kazhegeldin is the only serious opposition politician from Central Asia in the West...[They] could provide powerful backing to their Kyrgyz counterparts. But for that they need personal links with Kazhegeldin," Masanov noted.
Other analysts argue that a Kazak-Kyrgyz alliance would enjoy little support in Kyrgyzstan simply because Bishkek oppositionists would resent the interference of their stronger Kazak colleagues.
Kurmanov concluded that it was unlikely any attempt to unite the two groups would get beyond the negotiating table, as Kyrgyz opposition leaders are simply less intelligent and influential than the Kazaks. "The Kazaks are intellectuals who understand both nomadic and urban society," he said. " That's the root of their political strategy."
Igor Grebenshchikov is a regular IWPR contributor
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